Lauren Johnson envisioned a career in nursing, but her growing family put a four-year nursing degree out of the question.
The Edgerton resident, who now has two children under the age of 4, still found a career taking care of people — particularly their eyes.
“I’m kind of like the dental hygienist for the eyeball. I’m the one that spends the majority of the time with the patient, talks to the patient, finds out what their complaints are,” said Johnson, 22. “I like it in the sense that I’m still caring for people. What I liked about nursing is that human interaction.”
Johnson, who began her position at UW Health’s University Station Eye Clinic in August 2016, earned a one-year optometric technician degree and an eight-week ophthalmic assistant certificate from Madison Area Technical College. The program prepared her to earn certification as a paraoptometric technician, working with optometrists or “the dentists of the eye,” and later, a certified ophthalmic assistant, working with “the surgeons of the eye.”
MATC’s program has a nearly 100 percent placement rate, and many students secure employment before graduating. MATC has one of just a handful of accredited programs in the country that offer this training. There’s a shortage of these trained professionals in the Madison area. Demand for optometric technicians is attributed partially to baby boomers leaving the workforce, as well as an influx of baby boomers who need medical care. Moreover, everyone needs eye care.
Much like a nurse, Johnson calls patients from the waiting room to the exam room. She performs preliminary tests such as measuring eye pressure and muscle movement, as well as refraction — or “which looks sharper — option 1 or option 2?” She also fits eyeglasses and contact lenses. Johnson assists ophthalmologists with procedures such as removing skin tags on eyelids, flushing clogged tear ducts and taking biopsies. She’s cross-trained in many areas of ophthalmology, including glaucoma, cornea, retina and neuro-ophthalmology.
“I spend a lot of my time in Comprehensive Ophthalmology, working with patients needing cataract surgery,” she said. There, she takes measurements of the eyeball for the lens implanted during surgery and coordinates the post-operative glasses.
Johnson often spends more time with the patients than the doctor does. Her weekly schedule is typically Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., a far cry from most nursing hours.
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MATC’s one-year optometric technician program educates students on working with patients and the science of eye care. It also provides time for practice. Through the yearlong program, students spend half of their time in the classroom and the other half in lab classes. During their second semester, they work in MATC’s Truax eye clinic, testing students, faculty and alumni and fitting them for glasses and contacts. Late in that semester, students begin a process of two, three-week clinicals at local clinics, hospitals and private practices to help them decide where they might like to work.
To become certified as a paraoptometric technician, students must pass a national test with both written and practical segments.
Like Johnson did, students can continue on and earn an additional ophthalmic assistant certificate by participating in an eight-week clinical experience at one location. There, they learn to work with ophthalmologists who perform cataract, refractive (LASIK) and retinal surgeries, among others. After a year in the field, students are eligible to sit for another national test to be certified as an ophthalmic assistant, which typically merits a 20 percent to 25 percent pay raise.
To be successful in optometry and ophthalmology, one needs both people skills and technical dexterity. Some patients may be blind or have severe health problems. The tests these professionals perform may be the first indication of strokes, hypertension, diabetes or lupus.
Johnson said her job is exciting because of the research performed by the doctors at her clinic.
“I feel like I get a re-education every day. There’s constantly access to information at all levels,” she said. She enjoys the balance of personal responsibility and professional support, as well as mentoring students. Johnson also works with patients from the Department of Corrections, those with special needs and children as young as 4.
Although some nights, she goes home and worries about her patients, Johnson said her job is rewarding, especially at times when vision-impaired patients recognize her voice when she calls them from the waiting room.
“It’s just moments like that that make you feel really proud about what you do,” she said.